Past Exhibition: William Buckley: Belonging
On Monday, 26, December, 1803, at about nine o’clock William Buckley and five other convicts made their move towards freedom. Stealing a gun, some food and an iron kettle they ran through the night ….
The story of William Buckley is staggering and unique. The story of a desperate man looking for freedom and a new beginning in an unfamiliar land. The focus of my body of paintings revolves around the first few months of Buckley’s escape. Though I’ve tried I can’t even imagine how difficult a time this must of been. He left everything he knew apart from the clothes he wore and ran into the unknown. Soon alone he pushed along our bays, inlets and beaches ever aware of his presence in someone else’s land.
What fascinates me is that this incredible story unfolded in our much loved part of the world. Often we associate Buckley with well known locations such as Buckley’s cave at Pt Lonsdale, the river mouth at Barwon Heads, Breamlea, Buckley’s Falls, etc but I’m fascinated with other areas of our broader region that are far less glamorous and often over looked. Even though this connection to the landscape is so strong in my thinking about Buckley I have chosen the sky as my vehicle to convey his possible emotional state at key points of time and place. With so much frantic change occurring in his life and the need to adapt quickly to survive … Buckley’s troubled past was now merging with an uncertain future. Hunger, fear and wonder drew him along, loneliness gnawed at his soul …. he needed to belong.
William Buckley. 1803.
Extricated to a foreign land. Captured for a wrongdoing, and transplanted on to unfamiliar soil. Running from his captors, the Englishman lived amongst the local indigenous people.
The Wadawurrung people.
For the next 32 years, William Buckley belonged to the land along the Bellarine Peninsula. This land was to remain his home until his discovery by John Batman’s landing party in 1835.
Today, the idea of such a relationship with land drapes both romantically and uncomfortably over our (still largely) European shoulders. As we fence off the small plot of land we so proudly call ‘ours’.
In my mind the tale of William Buckley is entwined with this more universal tale, the relationship between humanity and land.
This story has enabled my body of work – a series of portraits and location based photographic imagery – as the beginnings of a larger foray in to our modern day relationship with the soil on which we stand. I humbly use William Buckley and his tale of survival to begin this excursion.
I have loved spending the time to look back at the past. I see Buckley as almost the calm before the storm, a reminder of the beautiful and unique way of life of the Wada wurrung before the impact of the European arrival.
In creating my own work in response to Buckley, as usual I became most fascinated with the flora and fauna.
The Lobster Pot in Barwon Heads, Narana and the Barwon River itself provided such a wealth of information and current day specimens. I collected the different plants, crustaceans and shells and took them back to my studio where I created my own type of midden. I worked out best where to place them amongst other related objects. I am not interested in botanical detail instead I focus on a painterly approach to shape, form and capturing the essence of each object and its interweaving connection. The native vegetation and wildlife was just so vital to daily life and the diet of the Wada wurrung people. I kept marvelling that such an abundance of food, shelter and medicines were right at Buckley’s fingertips and yet for such a long time, he remained completely unaware and unskilled in how to obtain them. It was the generosity of the Wada wurrung, their ingenuity and local knowledge that has resonated with me.
William Buckley – a deeper form of engagement with a place, its ancient people and himself.
Sitting in our built environments, I try to imagine how it was prior to the clearing of land, building and noise of our recent histories.
Having experienced this and then to be able to walk amongst a natural, ancient and dangerous land must have been amazing and truly frightening. William Buckley had a great deal of luck when taken in by our local Wathaurung people who helped him to survive. Murrangurk must have had such strength of character and a desire for change to help him survive his journeys. I will be using my understanding of this story to inform a body of sculptural works for this important exhibition.
There is so much in William Buckley’s story but for me it is his early days on this continent that I find most fascinating. A stranger in a formidable and unfamiliar land, he is hungry & haunted by inexplicable creatures in the canopies and undergrowth of our coastal scrub. Buckley is free but living hand to mouth with whatever he can scavenge from the edge of the southern ocean and its tributaries, completely cut off from civilization as he knows it.
This series of work seeks to view the landscape through Buckley’s eyes as he looks out across our rivers, hidden amongst ancient Moonah trees, and discovers he is not alone. It is in those transitional hours around dawn and dusk that Buckley furtively watches. Melancholy settles like a blanket as he quietly observes fire in the distance – a symbol of both danger and community. Smoke spirals into the sky and Buckley knows people are eating well. It is the witching hour and Buckley yearns for certainty and purpose; for fellowship and food above all else. A depth of loneliness overwhelms him and yet he will stay hidden and hungry for now- the battle waging within him between fear of the unknown and that very primal need not just to survive but to belong. Ultimately he will find community, protection and love amongst the Wadawurrung people.
Not much has changed in some ways – we still all need to find our tribe and to belong.
Through connection to place I began to be aware of William Buckley. When I lived in Fyansford, the Moorabool River and the Barwon were my walking places. Sometimes I might be lucky to see a wallaby or a platypus. There are neat wooden signs saying Buckley Falls and Bunyip Pool- small signs of previous presences.
In walking each day I wondered about the people here before. There was evidence of the big bluestone paper-mill and the embankments created to harness the flow of the Barwon River for industry. There were Fred Kruger’s photographs of the newly built paper-mill worker’s cottages from the 1870’s sitting in a strangely denuded landscape.
But before that, when words like Moorabool and Barwon held different meanings, this had been a place that sustained and nourished people. This was a place people moved through in a seasonal rhythm. The marks left behind were more subtle. They had created stories about terrifying creatures that lived in the water, traded green stone, made canoes and fish traps.
The myth of William Buckley has form in places, sayings, stories and images. Scraps of information came – a pamphlet from fisheries and wildlife about how the Wadda wurrung had used plant species around the Barwon River, Tim Flannery’s book on the life and adventures of William Buckley, Tommy McCrae’s lively ink drawings of Buckley dancing with the Wadda wurrung. After being in a place where he spent time, the thing that persists is the place, though the place is changed. I can experience the sound of the birds, the rush of the water over rocks, walking the land, the wind in my face but only in my present. In part, my work explores that place and our transitory occupation of it.
The nature of Buckley’s experience is so profound and human. It speaks about being an outsider – as a convicted felon and as a stranger in an unfamiliar place and an unfamiliar people- it offers potential of a different way of being in this place. It speaks about suffering, privation, bloodshed and fear. It speaks about acceptance, nurture and celebration. It testifies to the benevolence of the Wadda wurrung in taking in a stranger and restoring him to health. It speaks about how our physical being moderates our experience with environment and people.
The story of Buckley- lost, found by the Wadda wurrung, found by the white settlers, conflicted go-between between two cultures reminds me of the newness of European settlement in Australia. His survival for 32 years was thanks to his connection with the Wadda wurrung.
My work for this exhibition reflects the difficulty of piecing together a man’s life and story through fragments of information. I have employed techniques of deconstruction and reconstruction and printing to make my narrative. By physically stitching together pieces of paper I have tried to echo the hand-skills so important to people at that time and to emphasise that my version of Buckley is a cobbled together version derived from different sources. The physical dimensions of Buckley seemed important and I wanted a sense of him vulnerable yet strong, night and day. I have referenced the work of Tommy McCrae who chose to show Buckley as different, but part of the lives of the Wadda wurrung.